Where the Blue Crabs Danced

I’ll never forget my grandparents’ retirement home on the Rappahannock River in Irvington, Virginia.  That fragrance, the rich, deep smell of wood, feels like permanence to me. In a childhood of change, my grandparents’ home signified stability.  It was always there.  It was always where we visited and where we meant when we said “home” or “back in the States” when my father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed in England for three tours of duty.

Irvington 1965
Irvington, Virginia 1965–I’m with one of my sisters on the steps of my grandparents home.

Having moved on an average of every two years, I envied but never completely understood the bond my parents had to Virginia. They were both born in Richmond and went to Thomas Jefferson High School—they called it “TJ”. Dad went to VPI, now called Virginia Tech, and Mom to Randolph-Macon when it was a women’s college. I’ve seen pictures of them at formals with Dad in military dress and Mom wearing Marilyn Monroe lipstick. Whenever we crossed the Virginia state border, my parents started singing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” but it was the Waltons that got to me. John-boy Walton would make a comment in his Virginia accent at the end of every TV show and my mother cried without fail. I secretly longed to be so attached to some place, and my grandparents’ home eventually became that place.

When we visited, I always slept in the room beyond my grandparents’ bedroom, where the ceiling slanted like a doll’s house.  I always looked out of dormer windows, one on either side of pink rose print walls—a perfect place for daydreams. It was where I spent a tearful night on a heating pad with an ear ache after pretending to have a tea party at the bottom of the deep end of the Tides Inn community pool with another 5th grader visiting her grandparents. It was also the perfect place to take Love Story by Erich Segal from the downstairs library to read all night when I certainly was not allowed to read books with “s-e-x” in them because it was the summer of 5th grade. My grandmother always asked about my current crush, and I always enjoyed her interest.

Irvington 1971
Irvington, Virginia (1971) On a visit before moving to England

I always hated the paintings of stern-faced ancestors whose eyes followed my every move and kept me from taking an extra piece of candy from the dish on the coffee table.  Extra food was not encouraged. I always wondered how my grandmother could make one tomato go so far, and why my grandparents only ate mini thin sliced bread for their sandwiches. My mother said they never forgot the Depression, and I never forgot they were healthier than many of my other relatives.

I always loved watching my grandfather fix the leftovers—ours, of course—on a tin pie plate for the raccoon. We waited on the porch with a flashlight and thrilled to see the creature eat.  My sisters and I just knew it was Ranger Rick from the magazine we read monthly cover to cover—a yearly gift subscription from my grandparents.

But more than anything, I always looked forward to twilight rides on the Boston Whaler. Hopping down a stone path to the river, I’d then walk on wooden slats of the dock and see water moving beneath me. The best part was finding the boat bobbing among sparkling water reflections in the boathouse, resting on pilings clustered with little round barnacle condos where the blue crabs danced in an intoxicating fragrance of wood and salt water.

Even though my grandfather never caused a wake, we were meticulously strapped down with life preservers and seated.  My favorite position was forward with no view obstruction. At Granddaddy’s leisurely pace, I could see every house, every person who was outside, the club, the golf course, perhaps a heron or a few gulls, and the twisting lure of the flowing river. There is something magnetic in water, and there is something final in sunset.

Irvington 1982
Irvington, Virginia (1982)–A few days before my wedding

The older I get the more I notice the circle of life. After I graduated from college and married in the Richmond church where my parents married, my husband and I moved to Florida where he grew up. When we started our own family, memories became even more important to me. My grandparents sold their Irvington home and moved to Florida. My parents divorced, remarried others, and all lived in Florida. Then my grandparents died, my father died, and my mother is in a memory care facility with Alzheimer’s. Now my own children have left home, and my husband and I became grandparents this summer. I find my children’s recollections of their childhood important reminders to create golden moments for this new grandson.  What will he notice? What will he love? What will he remember? Only time will tell.

My grandson, Carson (6 months)

An Exact Woman . . .

img_1616“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” ~Sir Francis Bacon

Superlatives always throw me–what is your favorite (fill-in-the-blank)?–I find it impossible to answer with one best.  What is your favorite color? Purple…well, I love green, too. Blue can be amazing … you get my point. What is your favorite movie? The Quiet Man—no wait, I’ve never laughed as hard as when I watched Barefoot in the Park–but I absolutely love Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice mini-series–and loved Megan Follows in Anne of Green Gables, and Glenn Close in Sarah, Plain and Tall. I struggle with favorites; however, Sir Francis Bacon’s quote is most definitely my favorite.

I will never forget the first time I saw this quote. I was mesmerized, standing in the most beautiful library in our country, the Library of Congress, and reading every quote I could find engraved on the walls of the Washington, DC building.  I was in heaven–what a glorious day! I copied every quote I loved (there were quite a few), but this is the only one I remembered. It has stayed with me for years. It is what I opened every school year with whether I was teaching freshmen or seniors. To me, this quote is what teaching English is all about. I asked students to copy quotes for extra credit to start the class period–and this quote proved my point. Reading is crucial. Reading makes a full person–gives us ideas and a new perspective. Conference–talking about the reading–brings our life experiences to the table. No two people see or react to things in the same, exact way, so sharing our perspectives makes us ready for the debate of important ideas–completes us with many ways of seeings things–prepares us for life. Writing–the working out of opinions, perspectives, and ideas–makes us exact, helps us to say exactly what we mean in the best possible way (IF we work at it). I loved how high school students always paid attention during this lesson. They got it; it almost made them want to read!

It was during this time that I also told my students about a student I taught who was really smart, but never did the work required to make a good grade. He lived with his grandparents, and they paid public school taxes and private school tuition for him to have a golden opportunity to learn–and he was not making the most of it.  One weekend they grounded him and took all distractions from his bedroom.  He had nothing to do but read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton–a book many people hate, and one that I happen to love.  He greeted me Monday morning with a smile and said, “Mrs. Kistel–this is a kick-ass book!” I have never seen a student do such a 180º turn in my life.  His hand was up for every discussion question, and he had REALLY interesting things to say.  It was awesome. Because of the reading, he had something to say during our “conferences,” and when he wrote, his essays were full of substance and wonderful ideas!

I “retired” from teaching this summer.  I need time to babysit my first grandchild while his mother works and visit my mom who has just been put in a memory care center for Alzheimer’s. I also want to fulfill a lifelong goal of writing a novel.  I have wanted to seriously write from the time I was in 5th grade and knew I would major in English.  The transition is much more difficult than I thought it would be.  Writing is most definitely EXACTING!!  This is my first blog, and it is difficult to put myself out there–as difficult as teaching for an introvert!  I know that the refining process will be good for me as I find how to express in writing exactly what I want to say.